“All Shook Up”

earthquakePastor Russell Edwards

April 16th 2017

Colossians 3:1-4          Matthew 28:1-10

This year we read Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus.  Each year we cycle through the four Gospels because, although they all relate substantially the same event, they are not entirely consistent; each reveals, sometimes subtle, and in some cases significant, differences which we don’t want to focus on to the exclusion of the others, nor minimize.

All four Gospels speak of the tomb where the body of Jesus was laid and that it had been closed with a stone.  Mark writes that following Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathe’a, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body.  Pilate granted the body to Joseph, and taking him down, he wrapped the body in a linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock.   Mary Mag’dalene and Mary the mother of Joses watched as a large stone was rolled into place, sealing the tomb tightly.[1]

We know through archeological studies of the first century, that the use of a large stone was a common method of closing up tombs.  Depending upon the family’s financial resources, a “rounded” or wheel-shaped stone was cut to cover the entrance and a trough was dug directly in front of the tomb’s opening; when the stone was rolled down into the trough its own weight made it difficult, but not impossible to remove.  The intent was not to make the stone impossible to remove, because as three of the Gospels suggest, tombs were more like crypts than singular graves, they were used more than once, but to secure it from animals and thieves.

Matthew’s account of the burial gives us a detail the others omit, that the Temple leaders, not at all confident the death of Jesus was sufficient to quell the unrest of the people who followed him, had petitioned Pilate to seal the tomb, and that Pilate responded they should use their own Temple soldiers to do the job – which they did, and set guards to stand over it.

Consumed by the pain and despair of watching the burial, the most natural thing for the women to have done would have been to follow the example of the men, who had closeted themselves away in sorrow, shutting out the outside world.  Yet their faith was stronger than their grief.  Working sacrificially through their heartache, they prepared the spices and ointments believing, that if went to the tomb the morning after the Sabbath, somehow the stone, which the Temple’s soldiers were instructed to prevent, would be moved aside and they would be able to enter and anoint their master’s body.

The Gospels are all in agreement that when the women arrived at the tomb on the third day, the tomb was empty… but it is Matthew alone who tells us how the stone came to be moved.  He writes that there was a great shaking of the earth; he had written of an earlier quake, in his description of the crucifixion, coming just at the moment when Jesus drew his final breath.  Matthew attributes this second earthquake to the appearance of the angel who rolls the stone from the tomb to reveal an empty tomb, that Jesus had already been raised.  It was common, at that time, for natural events such as eclipses, floods, droughts, and earthquakes to be attributed to divine sources and purposes.  Recall that it was also Matthew who had the star “lead” the “Magi” on a journey from the east, all the way to Bethlehem.

An earthquake is something not easily overlooked yet the others don’t include this detail, and because Mark, Luke and John never speak of the earth shaking, many Biblical scholars believe Matthew’s earthquake to be metaphorical, not literal.  But there is evidence, some ancient – some quite recent, to support the fact that the earthquakes Matthew mentions may have been more than metaphor.  The Jewish author Josephus[2] and Roman Tacitus, neither writing in support of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, both record earthquakes in Judea in the years before Christ’s birth.  Geological research in the past 16 years has uncovered evidence of a seismic event, which can be dated at roughly the same time, in the sediments along the mud banks of the Dead Sea, just 13 miles from the City of Jerusalem.  What might be most remarkable, as it relates to Matthew’s text, is that evidence also points to another seismic event, approximately 6o years later, which would place it right at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.[3]  Luke  might support this, when he records in the Book of Acts what appears might have been an aftershock, in the days shortly after Pentecost, saying, “the place in which they were gathered together, was shaken.”[4]

One thing the four Gospels are consistent in, is the presence of a celestial witness – an angel.  They’re not in agreement on whether there was just one or two, nor are they at all specific that they were male – although throughout the scriptures, whenever the gender of an angel is identified, they are almost exclusively male.  But these are minor differences and can be understood when we recognize yet another thing that all four Gospel authors agree upon, but is too often minimalized: neither they, nor any of the eleven disciples witnessed the angel(s), because it was the women who were the first to go to the tomb.  ,.  It was the women who were the first to make the discovery and proclaim to the rest of the world that the tomb was empty; that Jesus had been raised from the dead – as he had said!  And it was a woman whom Jesus first revealed himself to; Mark writes, “He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.  She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping.  But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.”[5]

Maybe the male Gospel authors felt a woman was not capable of understanding the impact of her own experience, without an angel (male or otherwise) to explain it for them… John literally depicts Mary Mag’dalene as a confused woman, believing someone had stolen the Savior’s body.  They all write as if they are oblivious to the fact the women had been with Jesus all along, from the outset in Galilee.  It was a woman whose faith was so absolute, that she knew if she could only touch the hem of his robe, his power would heal her.  It was an unnamed woman who who perceived his death and appreciated how precious a gift he was to the world, and whom they slandered and assailed, as she responded by anointing him with expensive perfumes and oils.  While Jesus sees the value in each woman, the Gospel writers appear oblivious to how devotedly, even sacrificially the women served Christ throughout his ministry, and blinded to their presence at the foot of the cross, made so glaringly obvious by the absence of the men who had deserted.  And when it was done, it was the women who cared for his body.

The women were the first to receive Jesus’ great commission to “go tell” the news of his resurrection.  In that commission Jesus radically affirms the full dignity of all women.   It was through their testimony, that Jesus called the disciples who had abandoned him, to be reconciled; through their testimony, Peter, who had denied him, was restored.  Jesus’ commission to them to witness, a witness which would have been rejected in their own culture, solely because of their gender, is theologically powerful.   It is a confirmation that in his resurrection, as in his earthly ministry before death, the world’s accepted norms will be shaken to their foundations and redefined according to God’s will.  This is not solely a setting of gender right; this is about setting God’s Kingdom right.

The Gospels may have differences but metaphor or not, they are consistent in this: in Christ’s resurrection we see that “the last shall be first, and the first last” [6] that God values the meek, the rejected and dejected.  In his resurrection we see that healing and restoration are available to all, that forgiveness is given without judgement, no matter what the offense, even to those who have not sought.  In Christ’s resurrection we see that God is love, and that love is for all of humanity.   Metaphor or not, when he first proclaimed the Spirit of God had anointed him to heal the brokenhearted, proclaim release to the captives, restore sight to the blind, deliver those who are crushed, and proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” he shook up the community in the small village of Nazareth.  Now, in his resurrection he has literally shaken all of humanity, and the world has been forever altered.

—  Amen  ―


[1] Mark 15:42-47

[2] Josephus, “The Jewish War” (Book 1, Ch. XIX, 370)

[3] Jefferson Williams  http://www.deadseaquake.info/ Geologic Research into Events reported on the Day of the Crucifixion

[4] Acts 4:31 (NRSV)

[5] Mark 16:9-11  (NRSV)

[6] Matthew 20:16 (KJV)

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One Response to “All Shook Up”

  1. Lorraine Sniderman says:

    Thanks for your lovely Easter message…It was like the women were invisible…they were weak and not respected.. yet Jesus chose them to “go tell” the the news.. How wonderful to think about…Happy Easter Lorraine.

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